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The Proper Way to Brag

It's okay to brag to acquaintances, but not to friends.

I got a perfect score on the English section of the ACT. That's the test about grammar rules, remember?

Oops. Did my telling you that make me seem like an egotistical braggart?

We all want to make a good impression on other people. But how can we convey positive information about ourselves without being disliked? Indeed, research has demonstrated that there is a clear trade-off to being seen as more competent and being liked. For instance, one experiment in which people were induced to present themselves either modestly or favorably showed that the audience saw the modest-presentation group as less competent [1]. Likewise, another experiment showed that people who were induced to describe themselves as very competent were seen as more competent. However, they were rated as less likeable [2].

A brilliant social psychologist named Dianne Tice has offered a solution to the competence/liking trade-off. It turns out that the answer to whether it's appropriate to brag to others depends on whether those other people are friends or strangers. She and her colleagues ran a series of experiments and discovered that with friends, people naturally present themselves modestly [3]. However, with strangers, they tend to describe themselves in favorable or self-enhancing ways. When she asked people to switch roles and describe themselves favorably to friends and modestly to strangers, the people had trouble remembering details about the interaction. Tice and her colleagues interpreted this as evidence that it was effortful to switch their normal pattern of behaviors. The researchers concluded that "when presenting to strangers who, unlike friends, may not know one's performance record, self-enhancing self-presentation may be the most effective strategy. When presenting to people who know about one's past accomplishments, however, modesty may be the most effective self-presentation" (p. 1135).

Tice is basically saying that it's perfectly acceptable to say positive things about ourselves to new acquaintances, but not so acceptable to brag to friends. At the same time, she cautions us to remember what accomplishments we have mentioned to these acquaintances, so that we can avoid looking like arrogant fools by repeatedly mentioning the same accomplishments over time. For instance, if you went to Stanford University, tell that fact to people that you've just met. They will think you're smart and rich. Good for you! But if -- out of nowhere -- you bring up your education at Stanford again, you risk looking like a self-absorbed nerd.

I should mention, too, that if you are going to tell strangers something good about yourself, just state the accomplishment as matter-of-factly as possible. For instance, I once asked a new acquaintance where he went to college. He responded, "I went to college in Cambridge." Translation: "I went to Harvard, but I am so full of myself over it that I can't just say that." A simple, straightforward "I went to Harvard" would have been fine, don't you agree? Okay, I admit it's hard to say something that good with a straight face, so maybe we'll have to practice...

1. Schlenker, B. R., & Leary, M. (1982). Audiences' reactions to self-enhancing, self-denigrating, and accurate self-presentations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 18, 89-104.
2. Godfrey, D. K., Jones, E. E., & Lord, C. G. (1986). Self-promotion is not ingratiating. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 106-115.
3. Tice, D. M., Butler, J. L., Murayen, M. B., & Stillwell, A. M. (1995). When modesty prevails: differential favorability of self-presentation to friends and strangers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 1120-1138.